It was dark in the stone building as morning light struggled to filter through the windows. Muffled shapes and figures exhaled softly in the barracks, their breath mingling in the still-cool air. One of them rolled over, murmuring something gently in his sleep before silence once more reigned. Armor hung by bedsides, patched constructions of leather and metal and cloth. The gleam of weapons could clearly be seen resting next to sleeping arms or placed within easy reach—though perhaps not close enough.
Sloan stood in the center of them all, scanning the soft shapes of the soldiers. Soldiers? No. More like cattle. Lined up to the slaughter without even realizing that they’re about to die. He adjusted the grip on his weapon, a club stuck with nails and glass. It may not have been as…refined as some others, but it would serve.
He scratched his chest with one hand, his fingers meeting the raised veins and cracked skin. He could feel it, pumping through him, pulsing. It burned like fire, racing through his body. His lips curled slightly as his lowered his hand, glancing over the bodies. These were the people he fought with, side by side. These were the men and women he had dedicated his life to. These were the ones he protected. These were the mercenaries who safeguarded the town.
No wonder he had been so weak.
Look at them. Sleeping. Unobservant. They’d only wake for a horde—or a loud group of mongrels. They wouldn’t rise for a footstep. They wouldn’t stir for a breath or the soft whisper of an unsheathed dagger. They’re weak. Sloan took a step forward, feeling his lips slide back from his teeth as he raised his weapon. They’re food.
There was a creak, the sound of a door being opened. Sloan jerked his head around, grip tightening on his weapon as he barred his teeth. A figure was suddenly behind him, her pale hair standing out in the gloom.
“Hey, Sloan. What are you doing there?”
He glanced to the weapon in his hand, lowering it as he quickly noted the girl’s own blade was sheathed at her side. Foolish. He allowed himself to smile at her, feeling his muscles tense as he considered how best to eliminate her without waking the others. The armor might be an issue, but there was always her throat, “Just…observing.”
She nodded in return, her eyes watching his as she shifted to one side—slightly behind him. Smart move. I’ll give her credit for that little maneuver. He had to pivot slightly to keep her in his line of sight—and turn his back on the sleeping bodies.
“Observing what, Sloan?”
Sloan. It was a weak name—one that reminded him of feeble attempts at heroism and needless death. He shrugged, keeping his eyes on the latest threat, “Not sure yet.” He paused for a moment as the woman’s expression didn’t change, as she continued to watch him. Let’s see if we can throw her off a bit. “But Sloan’s not here right now…I’m having a bit of fun.”
The pale girl didn’t move, didn’t blink. Sloan felt the hairs on the back of his neck standing on end. Tentatively, cautiously, he sniffed the air. She smelled wrong, the scent of something other than what she was. He wasn’t dealing with prey—he was facing another predator. Competition. He needed to eliminate it—quickly.
He took a step forward, grip tightening on his weapon. Take her down before she knows the attack is happening. He took another step, and then she spoke.
“How about we go for a walk? You look like you might be a little hungry. We’ll find you something to eat.”
Something told him that this was a trap. She was leading him outside to kill him; she’d have all of the prey for herself, then. Two could play at that game. He’d agree to the walk and then…
We could use her. The voice spoke up in the back of his mind, pleading, begging. We could use her. She’d be an asset.
He considered it for a moment, his eyes travelling along the Bay Walker’s form. If they fought, it would be messy; he’d have to lick his wounds before…other activities. Why not?
Sloan curled back his lips again in a smile, noting the way the girl kept her hands at her sides. Always the hidden threat. He gestured with one hand toward the door, “You first.”
The bar was dim, the dingy windows blocking the sun as it weakly tried to penetrate the accumulated years of grime. Scattered dust motes swam through the few rays that made their way inside, spinning in complicated spirals. A few cracked mugs littered the ground, sticky with spilled drinks from the night before. But you forgot all of it—the filth, the dried blood, the ingrained sadness. You forgot all of it when you heard the music.
It floated across the space, brightening the crooked tables and broken chairs. It wove through the doors and into the sunlight, piercing the darkness. The thrum of a guitar spun out a melody, mingling with the voice of the man behind the bar. Sloan couldn’t blame them for gathering together—like so many flies to sugar. They leaned forward, ears straining to hear the notes—addicts that only wanted more.
Sloan wasn’t sure why the girl had brought him here—to a bar where prey would be difficult to capture with only the two of them. He was tired of playing the waiting game; he could sense she was there, seething under the surface, waiting to break free. But she hadn’t appeared—at least not fully.
“Don’t worry ‘bout a thing. Everything little thing’s gonna be all right.”
They leaned against the side of the sticky bar, the music floating over them in waves. He flexed his fingers, dried blood flaking from his hands. He wasn’t hungry at the moment, but that could change. He turned his head to watch the man playing the guitar. Unappetizing. His rotted face was stretched over bone and sinew, pieces of skin peeling at the corners of his mouth as he sang.
“Rise up this mornin’…smiled with the risin’ sun.”
Sloan shifted his weight, grimacing. The song made him uncomfortable, calling up images and thoughts that were best left buried. He cocked his head to the side, rolling his neck as muscle and tendons shifted under his skin. Ignore it.
Something made him glance toward the man again. Rudie, a voice whispered in the back of his head, a voice that he quickly pushed aside. The man was staring at him with blue eyes, lines creasing the flaking skin around them. They looked through him, peering into him and past him. Sloan flexed his fingers, gripping the side of the bar as he realized the danger. Those aren’t the eyes of prey.
“Don’t worry ‘bout a thing. Every little thing’s gonna be all right.”
Sloan was suddenly singing, the words ripped from his throat. He choked himself off, staring at the eyes behind the bar, the eyes that didn’t belong to prey or foe or friend; the eyes that hardened as he watched them, the blue turning to ice and the cold glint of steel.
He pushed himself away from the table, ignoring the pale girl next to him as he shoved past warm, weak bodies and hard chairs. He stumbled away from the blue-eyed man and his music, fled from the thoughts and the words in his mind. You’re weak.
He burst through the doors, bright sunlight blinding him momentarily as he swallowed air. He stopped, his mind whirling, feelings jostling for a place amidst the chaos. Then it was calm again.
He wasn’t sure when the girl had arrived next to him outside, only that she was suddenly there. Her hair glinted gold in the light as she leaned next to the building, hand resting on the hilt of her blade. She arched a brow as she watched him, “You okay?”
Sloan turned to look at her fully, lips peeling back from his teeth, “Never better.”
He should have known better.
Five pairs of hands dragged Sloan into the dim room as he thrashed, snarling and gritting his teeth. Rip out their throats. He planted his heels into the wooden floorboards as they shoved and pushed. He growled as they finally grabbed his arms and legs, bodily constraining him and placing him onto the wooden table.
Five. It takes five of them to drag us all the way here.
They wrapped metal around his hands and chest, binding his legs and ankles. The cold links bit into his skin as he struggled against the constraints. Weak. You were always weak. The hard corner of the wood beneath him pressed against his back as he twisted and writhed. Pathetic.
They all stood around him. The woman that smelled of death, the man the smelled of sin, the others that had dragged him inside: they all watched.
She betrayed him. They all betrayed him. He let out a shout, the metal straining against his skin as it screeched in protest. There was suddenly a sharp pain in the back of his head—and then there was darkness.
He stared at the creature, his mouth watering as he crouched in the underbrush. The sharp scents of earth and crushed leaves and musk mingled together. He moved forward, only one thing on his mind: blood.
Blood. It was all around him, coating him. The sharp, metallic scent of it crawled through his nostrils, making him dizzy. Sloan turned his head to one side, dazed for a moment as he realized the blood was his own, dripping to the wooden floorboards.
“Focus, Sloan. It’s okay.”
His vision swam as he looked upward, staring into blue eyes framed with green. He blinked—once, twice. The woman slowly came into focus. Dark curls hung around a face creased with worry. Rosemary.
“Keep with me, Sloan.”
There was a sharp pain, the feeling of a blade cutting into his chest. He yelled, vision fading momentarily as cold—indescribable cold—filtered through him. It seeped through his limbs, making them heavy as his thoughts slowed.
“Sloan! Can you hear me?”
He tried to say something to her, but it was too hard, too difficult to open his lips. Sleep crawled through his mind, soothing him as the cold forced him into darkness. It would be so much easier to give up—so much easier to rest. He was tired—so tired.
“Sloan! Don’t give up!”
It closed in on him, dragging him into its icy depths. He felt nothing—no pain, no worry, no weakness. He prepared to dive into it, to let it embrace him as his breath stilled.
He could let it all go. He could sink into it and never wake up. It would be so easy—so simple.
He gasped, his body jerking as pain flooded back into him; light burned his eyes as he struggled for air, clawing for it. The faces suddenly sharpened around him, brightening as his body spasmed. His chest burned, a sharp, white hot pain that pulsed through him as he took breath after breath after breath.
No. I’m not weak. I’m alive.